How this black NWT boarding school survivor finds peace through art
These days, 79-year-old Robert Burke often spends his time brush-in-hand on Vancouver Island, reminiscing about scenes from his tumultuous youth.
The art he creates reflects the years he spent at St. Joseph’s Residential School in Fort Resolution, NWT, and later at St. Mary’s Boys Home in Edmonton – the two institutions that marked much of his childhood took up his fourth year .
“It wasn’t a very happy experience being in boarding school. You know, it was life,” Burke said.
“That was life. You were alone when you were at boarding school, weren’t you?”
Burke was also on his own the rest of the time, the orphaned son of a black US soldier and an Indigenous woman from Fort Smith, NWT, who had abandoned him.
He grew up around different people when he wasn’t in boarding school. Sometimes he lived out in the bush with other indigenous people; other times he would spend the night at the police station just to find a place to sleep.
Those aren’t good memories, he noted. But he doesn’t blame the community or the region for what happened to him.
“I’m sure of what happened because it made me who I am,” he said. Then bluntly, “You know, I’m not a successful artist. But I’m getting known, and things are going.”
The “Silent Race”
At the schools themselves, there wasn’t a black community like we’d talk about today, he noted, but there were other black boys there. They felt a special bond, he added.
Sixty-seven years later, Burke still speaks to some of them a few times a year.
One of the series of art that Burke has painted is about what he calls the “silent race” – semi-indigenous children.
“I just did it because I knew who I am, because most of my life they tried to tell me I was someone else,” Burke said.
“I understood who I am because I knew who I am from childhood. You know you’re called a [N-word] When you’re a little kid, you know what it’s about.”
HEAR | The interview with Robert Burke starts at 26:55
Although Burke does not know who his father was, he does know that he was one of thousands of US soldiers who came north to work on the Canol Road, Canol Pipeline and Alaska Highway in the early 1940s.
Unlike white soldiers, these black soldiers are strictly segregated from local communities, said Ken Coates, a historian who has written and researched the history of the period.
It was “an era of big stereotypes and all kinds of assumptions,” Coates noted. The army would not let black soldiers near communities, instead housing them in camps miles outside of town.
Still, encounters between soldiers and parishioners would take place – “partisanships that weren’t particularly romantic,” Coates said, as well as some romances and also more violent assaults.
“In the Mackenzie Valley, particularly in northern Alberta, there were stories circulating about situations where there were children that came out of those relationships,” Coates said.
Paint to heal and inform
After his years at boarding school, Burke said the government sent him to a farm to do unpaid labor.
Eventually he became self-employed, started a family and became a heavy machinery operator.
He began working in the timber industry and continued as a contractor until he was 53 years old.
Then he went back to art school.
He is open about what his art means and how it is generally received by others.
“Most of my pictures are social pictures, so most people don’t like them very much,” he said.
“It all has to do with getting people to understand things and also clearing my head.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experiences at boarding schools or by the latest reports.
A national emergency hotline has been established for Indian residential schools to support survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by chatting online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.